Mixed in with all of the World Series hoopla, the Mets decided to hire Brodie Van Wagenen as their next general manager. This decision came out of left field almost literally— as the head of CAA Sports’ baseball division, he’s the primary agent of left fielder Yoenis Cespedes as well as several other prominent Mets.
Needless to say, this hire is curious at best. Van Wagenen has no front office experience whatsoever. That means he’s never had unfettered access to a professional scouting department. His access to advanced stats and information is probably not much better than our own.
Presumably, in 2018, all 30 teams should have proprietary data used for player evaluation that exceeds what’s publicly available. CAA surely stays up-to-date with modern information for the purposes of negotiating contracts, but there ought to be big difference between that and what teams use to build their rosters.
There are several possible reasons why the Mets went in this direction. Honestly, most of them aren’t very good. Here are a few possibilities, starting with the most optimistic and ending with #LOLMets.
The Mets Know Something We Don’t
Suspend belief for a moment and pretend we’re discussing a normal, competent baseball team.
Let me start over, because I promised optimism.
This explanation is almost certainly true, at least in part. They interviewed and hired him after all, so they obviously know more than we can find on his Wikipedia page. As an agent, Van Wagenen rose to the pinnacle of his profession. He’s undoubtedly a smart, talented guy. Maybe there’s more here than meets the eye, and he checks more of the “GM candidate” boxes than expected. He’s never been seriously considered for any other front office job before, but maybe he just never had the interest. It’s not like he lacked gainful employment. Plus there are only 30 of these positions, and most have tenured people in the seats who aren’t going anywhere.
Another interpretation is that the Mets have identified some important GM skill that the rest of the baseball world has not. They’re allegedly keeping assistant GMs Omar Minaya, and J.P. Ricciardi in place. Minaya is a former Mets GM who specializes in scouting and player development. Ricciardi used to be the GM of the Blue Jays, and has more of an analytics lean. With such qualified assistants, the Mets may feel empowered to go outside-the-box.
The Mets Value a Professional Negotiator
There’s a lot we don’t know about Van Wagenen, but we do know he negotiates huge contracts. He set up Robinson Cano with a $240 million contract in Seattle, and guaranteed Cespedes $162.6 million from the Mets. Nearly every aspect of player acquisition is a negotiation of some kind, whether it’s free agents, trades, signing draft picks, or international amateurs. Perhaps the Mets think his experience will give them an advantage with regards to talent acquisition.
However, there’s a serious flaw with this theory. Almost always, players will sign with whichever team offers the most money. As an agent, his job was to convince teams to pony up the cash for his clients. On the other side, it’s really just about whether or not the team can offer more than anyone else. Maybe that’s an oversimplification, and there’s certainly nuance involved, but I don’t see how Van Wagenen can convince his former contemporaries to accept lesser deals for their clients, especially considering the Mets current reputation.
The same goes for trades. The other 29 GMs can’t be tricked into accepting a bad trade like the less intelligent co-worker in your office fantasy league. They have their own analytics and scouting reports which inform their decisions, and it just seems unlikely that there’s any advantage here for Van Wagenen. If anything, he’s at a disadvantage because of his learning curve stepping into a front office for the first time.
Van Wagenen Smooth-Talked the Mets
Agents are professional talkers. They have to convince teams to meet their clients’ demands. Before that can even happen, they have to sell themselves to potential clients. They need ballplayers of all ages, types, and backgrounds to believe in them personally; that they will be their best ally no matter where their career may lead.
Now, imagine someone with that particular skill set in a job interview. Once again, Van Wagenen isn’t just any player agent, he’s one of the most successful in the world. With such a silver tongue, it’s easy to envision the interviewee getting hoodwinked into hiring him, regardless of how under-qualified he seems to be. Think of this as the Better Call Saul scenario.
Sadly, this might be the most plausible explanation yet. As MLB.com’s Anthony DiComo reports:
“Mets chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon reached out to Van Wagenen for advice about GM candidates; in time, the conversation shifted from others around baseball to Van Wagenen himself.”
Perhaps this is a little too cynical, but it wouldn’t be the first time the Wilpons were swindled by an expert at separating rich people from their money.
The Mets Want Van Wagenen to Low-ball his Former Clients
A partial list of CAA clients on the Mets includes Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Cespedes, Brandon Nimmo, Jason Vargas, and even Tim Tebow. deGrom and Syndergaard are the two most valuable assets the Mets have, and both are arbitration eligible. Van Wagenen would have been heavily involved in those arbitration negotiations. Actually, he would’ve written the playbook for the two aces to get as much money as possible. Now he’s trying to suppress their earnings from the other side of the table.
Of course, Van Wagenen won’t literally sit at that table. He’ll have to recuse himself from dealings with his former clients. But it’s just naive to think he won’t be involved in the Mets’ preparations at all. How could he not? He’s in charge of managing their nine-figure payroll and building the entire organizational roster. There’s no realistic way to do that while leaving himself with a huge blind spot on the players he knows best of all. This is especially true considering both are due for long-term extensions. If you don’t believe me, take it from deGrom’s agent, Brodie Van Wagenen:
CAA’s Brodie van Wagenen, agent for Jacob deGrom: “We have discussed Jacob’s future with the Mets at length. Jacob has expressed interest in exploring a long-term partnership that would keep him in a Mets uniform for years to come.” 1/2— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) July 16, 2018
More from Van Wagenen: “If the Mets don’t share same interest, we believe their best course of action is to seriously consider trade opportunities now.— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) July 16, 2018
The inertia of current situation could complicate Jacob’s relationship with the club and creates an atmosphere of indecision.”
In one sense, this is a big win for the Mets. Van Wagenen is the ideal GM to low-ball deGrom and Syndergaard in negotiations. Not only does he know everything they’re going to use to sway arbiters, but he also would have been their heaviest hitter. The players now have a major disadvantage.
Unfortunately, the point of a baseball team is not just to save as much money as possible; it’s to win baseball games, and I don’t see how hiring Van Wagenen accomplishes that at all.
Happy off-season, Mets fans!
Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at www.OffTheBenchBaseball.com. Tweets @depstein1983